Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin walked into the closed-door briefing on military strikes in Syria, with a joint resolution in his hand.
“I’m going to see what part of this still applies, and I think a lot of it still does,” the Illinois Democrat said as he entered the secure briefing room in the Capitol on Friday where Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was addressing senators.
The bill, S.J. Res. 21, was an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against Syria following a chemical weapons attack in 2013 that was orchestrated by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a military response, but that processes ultimately stalled over disagreements about the scope of the authorization.
Nearly four years later, senators are facing a similar situation. A chemical weapons attack has killed dozens of civilians in Syria and sparked outrage. But this time, President Donald Trump acted on his own, launching 59 missiles toward a Syrian air base on Thursday night.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the strike, but asked for Congress to be consulted on a broader Syria strategy. And some have called for Congress to authorize further action in Syria. But that authorization is not expected to happen anytime soon.
‘An AUMF for what?’
When a reporter asked Sen. Marco Rubio about the prospects for an AUMF for strikes in Syria, the Florida Republican first replied, “An AUMF for what?”
Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said there first had to be a strategy in place with clear objectives.
“Then we can have that debate about not just the tactics, but about whether congressional authorization is required,” Rubio said.
“Unless the president gives us an authorization, I don’t think Congress would consider an authorization for Syria, as to Assad-Syria,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the top Democrat on Foreign Relations.
Cardin said after the Friday briefing that there were no indications there would be additional military strikes against Syria.
Lawmakers have disagreed about whether the initial strike on Thursday night should have been approved by Congress beforehand. Some said it was allowed within Trump’s constitutional authority as commander-in-chief. Others argued that the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war, so the legislative branch needed to approve of military actions.
Senators are still waiting for the administration’s legal justification of the strikes, according to Sen. Tim Kaine. The Virginia Democrat said senators were told the administration would address that question in the coming days.
But there is consensus that Congress should be involved developing strategy and approving any further or longer-term military actions in Syria.
“There’s no further military operations planned,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “In the event there is additional activity plan then certainly yes we need to be consulted and discussed.”
The administration has signaled that it could take further action. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said Friday is “prepared to do more” to stop chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
“I know that they are considering this,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said of increased military action in a conference call with reporters. “They understand that if there is sustained engagement against the Syrian government it will require an AUMF. I’m confident they will come to us with one and that the Congress will seriously consider it.”
Senators are still waiting for the administration to present them with a broader Syrian strategy. But if Trump bypasses Congress, some lawmakers say there are ways they can force the discussion, though it’s not clear those efforts would be successful.
Forcing the conversation
One of the most immediate and effective ways to force the White House to engage in a discussion of Congress’ role in military action in Syria is by using Congress’ power over funding for the Defense Department and the government as leverage.
“The power of the purse. That’s what all this comes down to,” said Durbin, who is the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “They’re asking for a supplemental [funding bill] for the Department of Defense. If enough members of Congress think that’s worthy of debate, this is the time to do it”
“I hope it isn’t a fight,” Durbin said when asked if the impending April 28 government funding deadline could force a standoff over Congress’ role in approving military actions. “I hope the administration says, as President Obama did, ‘Here’s what we want.’”
Some lawmakers also pointed to the 1973 War Powers Resolution as a way Congress can exercise oversight over military action. It stipulates that if a president sends U.S. forces into battle, he or she must report the move to Congress, which can approve the military action. If it is not approved, those troops must be withdrawn within 60 days. But the law has been criticized as toothless.
“We have the War Powers Act,” Cardin said. “There’s no way of enforcing the War Powers Act, but we do have the War Powers Act.”
Others said Congress could introduce its own AUMF. Though Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said moving on an AUMF drafted by Congress would be “exceptionally difficult” if the president is opposed to the measure. The Delaware Democrat instead said that Congress could use its power of the purse to force the issue.
Even if the administration decided to act further in Syria, and presented an AUMF in Congress, it’s prospects for passage would likely be dim. The same divides over the correct language that would give the president just the right amount of authority persist today.
“Democrats have insisted that [an AUMF] be a micro-manage of the president of the United States,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. “Now I’ll be glad to continue to negotiate, but I will not give up the commander in chief’s responsibilities.”
But, going forward, proponents of congressional authorization say that Congress must move now to assert its role in approving military force.
“The president has already, in 75 days, conducted the first ground operations in Yemen, the first ground operations in Syria, and now air attacks in Syria,” said Kaine. “So we ought to be worried about it.”
“And at the beginning of the administration it’s time to get it right, or it’s going to race away from us and we’ll regret it,” he said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.